Pet Talk: Your home could be housing a whole host of pet toxins
We think that our indoor pets are safe from predators, cars and disease, but our homes may be exposing our pets – and ourselves – to risks of a different realm.
Everything from the mattresses we sleep on to the motes of dust on the shelves may contain flame retardants or other chemicals, says Laurel Standley, an environmental consultant and author of “#ToxinsTweet: 140 Easy Tips to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure to Environmental Toxins.”
Standley began studying the effects of household toxins in pets after she, her mother and sister all lost pet cats to cancer.
She grieved the losses but Standley, who earned a doctoral degree in chemical oceanography, also grew concerned about what made them sick in the first place.
She worries about the prevalence of chemical flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) found in many electronics, polyurethane foams, carpet padding, furniture, mattresses and other common household items.
“Each time we sit down on couches with foam cushions, dust particles fly out and fill our homes with dust containing flame retardant chemicals,” Standley says.
The products are being phased out after growing concern about their health effects. Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed new standards to reduce use of fire-retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products.
Some studies have associated hyperthyroidism in cats to the presence of PBDEs, including one published in February 2012 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.
“Proving cause and effect is extremely difficult,” Standley says, “But that’s not an excuse to not protect our pets.”
Plastics also contain harmful chemicals, including bisphenol A and phthalates that have been associated with reproductive and other endocrine effects.
Some of these chemicals have been restricted from children’s products (such as the Multnomah County ban on sippy cups and baby bottles made with BPA).
“The same chemicals haven’t been regulated for dog or cat toys,” says Jennifer Coleman, outreach director at Oregon Environmental Council. “They could still have an impact on endocrine systems.”
Like infants, pets are also smaller than adults, metabolize more quickly and are closer to the ground. This makes them more vulnerable to harm from many of the products humans use, she says.
One way to reduce their exposure is by replacing plastic food bowls with those made from stainless steel, ceramic or glass instead, Standley suggests.
The fish in those food dishes can also be toxic; fish living in polluted streams can accumulate toxic substances in their systems, she says.
Even the plastic liner of the cans they come in may leach BPA.
Pigments and dyes are also likely to contain chemicals, so look for toys without a lot of color or bleaching, Coleman advises.
“My strategy with my own dog is to do the simple things that make the most sense to me,” she says.
She avoids vinyl and PVC plastic and opts instead for those made from rubber or fabric, such as tug ropes and stuffing-free toys. Even tennis balls can be toxic; the ones designed for dogs often contain lead.
Of course, some toxins will make your pet sick sooner rather than later.
At DoveLewis, veterinarians see some toxins more often than others. Metaldehyde slug bait ingestion can cause major muscle tremors that can be fatal, as well as liver problems, says staff veterinarian Dr. MeiMei Welker.
The emergency animal hospital also sees a fair number of dogs sick from marijuana ingestion, while rodenticide toxicity – suspected in the death of a prize-winning Samoyed recently– is a near-daily occurrence.
There are several kinds of rat bait, but the anticoagulant rodenticides are slower to act and allow more of a window of time to administer the antidote.
If your pet consumes poison of some sort, it’s best to bring the packaging to the veterinarian so he or she can treat it most effectively.
Other common toxins seen at DoveLewis include raisins and grapes; the sugar substitute Xylitol; Easter lilies; chocolate; ibuprofen and naproxen (Aleve); and acetaminophen.
The canary in the kitchen
Birds are uniquely sensitive to their environment; there’s a reason the phrase “canary in a coal mine” became so popular.
They’re very sensitive to aerosols, and their respiratory systems are very different than ours, says Dr. Marli Lintner of the Avian Medical Center.
Bird lungs are designed to breathe in very clean, thin air, so breathing in some toxic inhalants can kill them immediately or make them very sick.
“Any sort of fume that makes your nose tingle or your eyes water is bad news for the birds,” Lintner says.
Fumes from nonstick pans pose one of the biggest threats to our feathered friends.
Once the pans overheat – usually when the temperature reaches above 530 degrees Farenheit – a gas called polytetrafluoroethylene is released, says Dr. Deborah Sheaffer, staff veterinarian at the Audubon Society of Portland.
They can die very quickly, so if you see your bird panting or having trouble breathing, you should take it to the veterinarian immediately.
Lead poses another common avian household hazard. Paint, stained glass window frames, curtain weights, costume jewelry; foil from champagne bottles; and old bird cages can all be toxic.
“When people have pet birds, they really need to be cognizant of what’s around them,” Sheaffer says. “They’re curious and inquisitive and they like to chew on things.”
This may be a lot of information for you to chew on too. Just remember that making your home safer for your pets makes it safer for humans as well.
Offering your pet toys made from fabric or natural rubber instead of vinyl and PVC plastic can help reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals. Jennifer Coleman
How to help reduce toxins in your home
- Vacuum frequently, preferably with a cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter, even on tile or wood floors (the goal is to not sweep dust up from the floor).
- Eliminate carpet wherever possible; the less carpet you have, the easier it is to control dust.
- Use rugs made of natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool or jute.
- Vacuum your couch regularly.
- Dust with a simple damp rag. Dry dusting can stir dust back into the air.
- Replace plastic food dishes with those made from stainless steel, ceramic or glass instead.
- If you have birds, avoid using nonstick pans whenever possible.
- Don’t expose birds to smoke or household aerosol products such as harsh cleaners, perfumes, hairspray, etc.
- Keep pets off the countertops and secure medications and other toxins safely in cupboards.
- If you’re afraid your pet ingested something he shouldn’t have, call the Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680 (consultations cost $39).
- Don’t try to make your pet vomit; in some cases it could make the situation worse.